What I Learned from Last Week

As diverse and surprising as my days usually are, there’s also a strong element of repetition in the life of a teacher.  The bell rings at the same time every day.  Hall duty is always awkward and monotonous.  The grading pile never diminishes.  And the “hamster on a wheel” feeling tends to bleed over into the evenings and weekends too.  Friday nights are pizza and a movie at home because we’re both too tired to do anything else.  Saturday follows the same pattern of shopping, laundry, and cleaning.  Sometimes we get a chance to escape; other times we just have to notice the details, the subtle shades of each day’s color so that we don’t get lost in routine.  That’s partly why I keep a blog: to pay close attention to my life.  And last week, I noticed a few things that I don’t want to forget.

It started Tuesday, when I traveled with a small team from my school to a private academy in Los Angeles to observe middle school classrooms in which all students had iPads.  I had cajoled my way onto this committee, because I was desperately curious to see what high-tech classrooms looked like.  Mostly, I wanted to see if I would still have a job in ten to fifteen years.  Marshall McLuhan says that every time new technology is introduced, something is gained and something is lost.  There was plenty to gain through tablets for every student: improved communication, research, and collaboration, for starters.  But would I, the teacher, be the thing that was lost?

The answer was a profound and continual no.  Students with tablets had acquired ownership of their learning, but not independence.  They could access textbooks, as well as teachers’ unit plans, quizzes, cool apps, and links to resources, but the order in which learning processes were conducted and the intensity and duration of study for each objective had to be planned and guided by the teacher.  Students were more engaged and involved in the material, and the teacher’s role had certainly changed, but the teachers were far from obsolete.  I take that back: teachers who insisted on remaining depositors of information into the banks of students’ minds were quickly becoming obsolete, and there were a few of those.   I could sense their reluctance to change their approach to education in response to new technologies, and I could smell a little fear as they tried to keep teaching the way they always had: with a strong sense of nostalgia for their own education and a lot of complaining about the negative effects of gadgets.  However, the teachers who embraced the technology and were flexible in their teaching style became conductors of symphonies, with each student playing his or her own instrument and coming together seamlessly to produce a masterpiece (I should mention the division of reluctant and accepting teachers was not always an older/younger division).  One project that was particularly profound was a science class’s animal iBook.  Each student contributed a chapter about an animal, and they had to produce text with hyperlinks, photographs, and even a video they had shot of their animal with the iPad on a school field trip.  Sights, sounds, and interactive elements converged to create a digital document that had been downloaded by schools around the world.    I was hooked.  I wanted tablets in my classroom tomorrow.  I was also reminded of the importance of good teachers and the need for change.  After all, our educational methods haven’t been dramatically modified since the printing press.  It’s time to harness the power of new technology so that students are well-equipped to do much more with computers than update Twitter and play Angry Birds.

The second thing that happened was a field trip to the Old Globe Theater in Balboa Park.  I had been there twice before; I knew where to go and what to do during the free time.  I sat outside in my favorite picnic spot and enjoyed cheeses and fruit and baguette.  I curled up in a corner of the Timken art museum and journaled in response to the art–something I love to do and haven’t been able to do for a long time.  I wandered through the botanical gardens.  I enjoyed laughing and talking with my new students and discussing Shakespeare with them.  I enjoyed the fact that flowers were bright and the sun was warm and palm trees were green in mid-November.  The next day, I came back to students dramatically crying and hugging me and hollering, “NEVER LEAVE US AGAIN!  WE MISSED YOU SO MUCH!”  Granted, this had more to do with a not-so-great sub than it did with me, but it still felt so nice to be needed.  For the last few months, I have been feeling like I’m a long-term sub myself, like the former teacher will return at any moment, demand a reckoning, and take back control of her classes.  I  have felt utterly, foolishly lost when it comes to school procedures, and I was sick of feeling like I had no idea what was going on.  Coming back and restoring order, smoothing out the rough spots, and watching students respond favorably to the comfort of my routines was so satisfying.  For the first time since we moved here, I thought to myself “I belong here.  I’m not going back to Colorado, and that’s okay.”  I felt much more present and peaceful than I’ve felt in a long time, and my heart was full of gratitude to God for bringing me through a tough season of loss.  Some days when my heart still aches for my old life, but the pain isn’t as sharp now, and it’s more fleeting.

Third, I went to Mexico and noticed something about the kinds of people I like.  Our party consisted of me, my husband, my co-worker and her husband, and another co-worker.  We had a delightful adventure that started with brunch near the coast, continued inland to the wineries of the beautiful Valle de Guadalupe, and ended with a steaming plateful of lobster at dinner.  While we were enjoying our barbacoa brunch beneath the shade of a massive tree, I noticed something about my co-workers that I especially liked: they had traveled.  The funny thing is, even when we weren’t talking about places we’d traveled, I noticed that the ways in which they talked about the world were more interesting than the ways in which people who haven’t traveled discuss the world.  There is a mindset that travelers have–a slightly self-deprecating humility, a sense of wonder, a natural curiosity, a broad-minded view of things–that makes them delightful people to converse with.  I haven’t figured out yet if these are the sorts of people who travel or if there is something about travel that makes them this way.  I think it’s a little bit of both.    Travel’s no guarantee of becoming a delightful and fascinating person.  I have certainly known people who have hauled their small-mindedness across thousands of miles across vast oceans and remained steadfastly in their ethnocentric bubbles.  For those who are open to learning the broad and deep lessons travel has to teach them, they simply become better people.

Those are the things that last week had to say; I look forward to learning from this coming week.  As Fredrich Buechner says, “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

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4 thoughts on “What I Learned from Last Week

    • I certainly hope that you DO take me with you WHEN you travel (not IF). I hear I’m not such a bad tour guide. :)We can start in Paris, move on to the South of France, and then work our way down the Italian coast.

  1. The technology curve is not unique to teaching. Unless you work for Google, every workplace is divided into the group who embrace technology and use it to become more productive, and the group who reject anything new in fear it will make them obsolete.

    • Very true indeed! Education, however, is much farther behind the technology curve than other institutions (I’m speaking of K-12 schools specifically). I think that the last major technological change to hit my field was the printing press; our methods haven’t changed much since the Middle Ages. It’s hard to believe that I’m just now facing the reality of high tech in the classroom!

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